Michael Wilson

As a news photographer in Lakeland for 35 years, Michael Joseph “Mookie” Wilson was a fixture at local events — everything from Friday night football and Detroit Tigers’ spring training to July’s “Red, White and Kaboom” fireworks and performances of the Lakeland Symphony Orchestra, his scruffy face obscured by his ever-present camera.

Wilson, 61, died Sunday evening at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center following a stroke.  He was surrounded by his family, friends and former colleagues from The Ledger, where he worked for 28 years.

Wilson grew up in New Jersey and South Florida, where he graduated from Coral Springs High School in 1980. It was in South Florida that he honed his fishing skills and gained a lifelong love of catching dinner or a trophy. As a free-lancer, he penned a well-read fishing column in The Ledger, one he insisted on finishing before finally going to the emergency room on Aug. 17.  

There probably isn’t a gifted athlete in Polk County in the last 30 years who didn’t have their picture taken by Wilson as they scored a touchdown, made a rim shot or hit a homerun.

He could easily be spotted among a scrum of photographers because he was always wearing a weathered, aqua-colored Columbia fishing shirt, cargo shorts or pants, sneakers and a shock of curly hair sticking up from his ever-present visor. The late Ledger Chief Photographer Tony Ranze dubbed him “Hairball” for that. And he was always carrying a well-worn and tattered gray camera bag.

Wilson had a long list of friends, from a near-billionaire to barstool buddies at Molly McHugh’s — and everything in between.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd asked for updates about Wilson’s health when he found out he had been hospitalized, saying he had run into Wilson at Fat Jack’s Deli recently and noted that he did not look well. He also remembered when Wilson had come up with the idea of taking the sheriff, a budding photography enthusiast, to Circle B Bar Reserve for a photography lesson. Wilson called it “Shooting With The Sheriff.”

“We were taking lots of photos and I nailed a photo of a spoonbill while he was busy talking, which he liked to do,” Judd said. “The rookie got the shot while he wasn’t paying attention.”

Wilson also took a photograph of Judd in front of a big bull alligator.

“He positioned me so it looked like I was standing very close to the gator when it was actually over the next ridge,” Judd said.  “He was a great photographer and was tickled that he made me look super brave or super stupid for getting that close to a massive alligator.  I will miss him.”

Florida Rep. Melony Bell of Fort Meade also asked for updates about Wilson’s condition and was saddened to learn of his death.

“Mookie was an exceptional photographer and friend. I’ve known him both professionally and personally for years,” Bell said.  “Always dependable, kind and uplifting.  Our shared love of Polk County and his extraordinary talent for photography made him my go-to guy anytime I needed moments captured on film.  He always promised he’d never take a bad picture of me and he held to that promise. I know Michael will be greatly missed by many but his legacy will live on through his photographs.”

Wilson was known for being good-natured, jovial and a bit of a ladies man, although his adventures and romantic entanglements were sometimes ill-planned and haphazard, occasionally involving broken bones or an emergency room visit.

Like the time he was entertaining the three children of advertising executive Susie Brutscher Green in the newsroom at night when she was working on an advertising project. Wilson put her young son Michael on his shoulders and asked him if he wanted to play airplane.  He took off running down a hallway, making a loud engine sound as the 6-year-old laughed. And then Wilson tripped and fell, with little Michael landing on Wilson’s ankle. Wilson was so concerned about Green’s son that she didn’t find out until the next day that Wilson had actually broken his own ankle. He was forevermore known at the Green house as Airplane Man.

Years later, Wilson would photograph Michael when he played football for Lakeland Christian School and then Southeastern University.

“He got some amazing pictures of Michael’s catches,” Green said, proudly showing off one of Wilson’s photos that had appeared in The Ledger.  “Somehow he just knew how Michael ran his routes and when he’d catch the ball. My Michael always loved seeing him on the sidelines because, after all, that was his ‘Airplane Man,’ not just Michael Wilson.”

Wilson began his professional career in Gainesville when he was attending the University of Florida’s photojournalism program, from which he graduated in 1987.  He worked at The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper, and The Gainesville Sun before a fateful meeting with Ledger journalist Robin Williams Adams. She was in Gainesville working on a story in the late 1980s and The Sun, The Ledger’s sister paper, provided Wilson as a photographer. She mentioned that The Ledger had an opening for a full-time photographer and he was hired by Executive Editor Skip Perez, beginning his career in Polk County in January 1988.

“I hired him and quickly learned he was a gifted and hard-working news photographer, proud of his journalism education at UF,” Perez said. He noted Wilson’s kindness: not only did they talk about their best fishing spots and tackle, “He always knew and shared his inside info.”

And Perez recalled Wilson’s gift of collecting friends. “He could charm the bark off a tree.”

Fellow photographer Scott Wheeler said he and Wilson started at the Winter Haven bureau of The Ledger one month apart.

“We always thought it was ironic that we grew up in the same town, went to rival high schools, both went to the University of Florida to study photojournalism, yet we never met until we started working at The Ledger,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler said he and his colleagues always gave Wilson a hard time “because he always seemed to find trouble no matter the assignment … of course, all in an effort to make the best picture for the story that he could.”

Colleague Ernst Peters said despite many mishaps, Wilson generally came out of situations no worse for wear.

“There are these guys who have angels on their shoulders who keep them out of harm’s way,” Peters said.

Ledger reporter Diane Lacey Allen said he was lovable, but could be exasperating. 

Like the time they were sent down to Frostproof to cover the story of a sinkhole swallowing a house.  Wilson wanted to get the best shot and so he inched his way closer and closer to the edge of the sinkhole –- and then fell in, emerging unharmed.

Or when they were headed to South Florida in 2004 to cover Hurricane Charley.  Allen was driving 100 miles per hour to reach Fort Myers before landfall and got pulled over by a Florida Highway officer. 

“Might have talked my way out of it if Michael hadn’t started shooting pictures of this bad-tempered trooper,” Allen said.

And then there was the time they were covering a beekeeper.  Allen gave Wilson all of the protective gear until he looked like an emergency worker in a hazmat suit. 

“And he still got stung while I stood there in a sleeveless top,” Allen recalled.

Ledger courts reporter Suzie Schottlekotte said an incident with Wilson taught her to always stand behind the cameraman.

One day in court, the father of one of Leon Davis’ four murder victims began climbing over benches to reach the man who set his daughter on fire. Schottelkotte said she turned around to get out of Wilson’s way because she knew he needed to get that picture, but she was met with his camera in her face.

“He yelled at me to move, so I did – I went straight down,” she said.  “His next shot won him a handful of awards. Lesson learned.”

Wilson would often help fellow photographers. Cindy Skop said she met him at a Nikon seminar in 1999 and the two struck up a quick and, what turned out to be, enduring friendship.

“I was working at a small paper in Louisiana and he was here in Lakeland,” Skop said.

In the days before texting, the pair maintained their friendship via handwritten letters and phone calls, with Wilson trying to teach her long-distance how to manipulate Polaroid photographs.

“He even bought me my first SX 70 and a couple of packs of Polaroid (film),” she said.

It was Wilson who helped her land a job at The Ocala-Star Banner and then, eventually, at The Ledger.

She described their friendship as one of squabbling siblings, who always made up.

“He was a pain in my ass, but I loved him,” Skop said, describing the sentiment that so many shared on Monday following his passing.

Wilson had a soft spot for animals. His small legion of Facebook friends loved his posts about a stray Siamese cat he fed at his Johnson Street apartment, a cat he dubbed “Formally Feral, Rotten Little Chippy” and a one-eared squirrel he named “Vincent Van Squirrel.”

The posts were written as though Chippy were the author; Wilson once said they should be read with a female British accent.

“The human and his ever annoying, clicking black box, once again interrupt a fine, post meal slumber on the back veranda of the fine dining establishment known as Chez Chippy,” Wilson wrote in May. “A complaint to management would be in order for this constant intrusion, but I fear it will fall on deaf ears. I’m told the human is the head of the management staff.”

After he was laid off from The Ledger during one of the paper’s many cutbacks, Wilson was known to hustle for work and rent money.

Longtime friend Dirk Valk said Wilson began picking up discarded lottery scratch-off tickets in convenience store parking lots after finding a winning ticket. They were tickets the buyers didn’t realize had actually won money. It became an amusing hobby for him, with convenience store clerks around the Lake Morton historic district even pulling tickets out of the trash to save for him.

“He once got $10,000 off one of those tickets,” Valk said.

LkldNow founder Barry Friedman, who sometimes hired Wilson for freelance jobs, called Wilson one of a kind.

“I’ll remember what a go-getter he became when he transitioned from employee to free-lance photographer,” Friedman said.  “I’ll remember Michael’s enthusiasm for life in general and fishing in particular.”

Longtime Ledger Chief Photographer Calvin Knight asked the nurses at Lakeland Regional to make sure Wilson’s television was always on ESPN, especially for Gator football. Friends were hoping he didn’t comprehend UF’s loss to Utah on Friday night.

Wilson was predeceased by his parents, Ronald and Mary Wilson, and his brother, Kevin.

Wilson is survived by nephews John Wilson and Ronnie Wilson, nieces Haylee and Leah Wilson, cousins Tommy Donnelly and his wife Dawn, Rita Norton, Mary Camillo, Mike Williams and Bob Williams and his aunt, Sister Nora McCarthy, and uncle, Brother Damian McCarthy.

Cousins Rita Norton and Mary Camillo said a service will be held at a later time and suggested that anyone who wished to should gather at their favorite watering hole this week and raise a glass to Mookie.

SEND CORRECTIONS, questions, feedback or news tips: newstips@lkldnow.com

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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8 Comments

  1. RIP Mook. I am shocked and saddened by this news. A great photographer, a great fisherman, and a tremendous friend.
    Capt Glen Taylor

  2. Mookie was one of the first photographers hired to staff a new office in Winter Haven opened by The Ledger in the 1980s. As the editor overseeing that effort, I can say he was a big reason for the success of that expansion. Like all good shooters, he had a real nose for news to go along with his photo chops. RIP Mookie. I’ll remember the good times chasing after the story.

  3. The anecdotes were priceless. You captured Mookie’s essence as well as any painting but choosing words for your palette.
    Thank you for that.

  4. I really enjoyed learning more about Mookie.

    His wonderful wildlife photos rescued and redeemed many of the pages I designed at The Ledger in the 1990s. Some of us wondered if he carried dead fish or something in his trunk to get the tremendous and close-up “bird art” he presented to us.

    I’m sorry he is gone and thank you for this great obit.

  5. a fitting tribute to mook. my wife and i ran into him a few weeks ago at the store on cleveland heights. he was doing his lottery thing but he struck up a convo w us and were going to have him do our xmas pics. he was a master of his craft but so humble. you will be missed by so many bro

  6. One of a kind. Great photog and had a nose for news. He was a fun guy at work and at play in the Winter Haven days. Many of my craziest memories of those days have Michael right in the middle. Way too young. RIP Mookie!

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